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Long Term Policies : Working Seniors: 2.2 million older Americans have full or part time jobs. How they eat on the run.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Theresa Gardner finished her breakfast of peanut butter toast and coffee, tossed a frozen diet entree into her bag and drove off to her job in a telemarketing department.

This may sound like the routine of any busy working person, but Gardner is 76 years old. Since she returned to work two years ago, she thinks her diet has improved immensely. “I’m more aware of what I’m eating,” she said, “I’m not just sitting around feeling sorry for myself.”

Gardner, a former homemaker, who lost her husband 23 years ago and lives with her daughter and son-in-law, does the family cooking because she gets home before they do. “We try to keep things balanced and as low in calories as possible,” she said. “I love to cook and eat, but too many of my recipes contained cheese and cream so I cut them out. " Her family’s favorite low-calorie dish is a chile relleno made with egg whites and low-fat cheese, but occasionally she’ll still make pork chops with scalloped potatoes and vegetables.

Wayne Scheppele is 74 and has heart problems, but he, too, holds a job, a part-time office position in an industrial ice-making factory. “I work because of financial necessity,” he said, “but I like working and my doctor says it’s the best thing for me.”

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Scheppele brings his lunch to work--perhaps a dark bread sandwich made with lean pot roast or a skinless chicken breast with low-calorie dressing in place of mayonnaise. With this low-calorie, low-cholesterol lunch there is often a high-fiber nutrition cookie packed by his health-conscious wife, Marie.

At home the Scheppeles eat no eggs, use meat sparingly and add fish or poultry to their diet two or three times a week. “We eat a lot of broccoli--in spite of what President Bush thinks--and we skim off fat from soups,” said Mrs. Scheppele, who does the cooking for her husband and three grandchildren living with them. “We eat baked potatoes with no-cholesterol margarine, and try to include more raw or steamed vegetables, such as cauliflower and turnips. We also have to be aware of the nutritional needs of our growing grandchildren, so we are especially aware of fats in the diet.”

Florence Nuccio, 67, spent two years traveling after retirement, but decided to return to work. Now she works four hours a day in the gift card department at Dana Drugs in Burbank. As president of the Italian Catholic Federation at St. Charles Church in North Hollywood she helps raise funds for the homeless.

Nuccio, too, has become extra health-conscious since working. Her serum cholesterol level, which measured 300 milligrams per deciliter of blood last year, has gone down to 194 mg/dl. The reason? A low-cholesterol Jenny Craig diet, which includes lots of pasta, and a daily one-hour walk.

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Gardner, Scheppele and Nuccio are among the 2.2 million healthy older Americans--about 10% of the over-65 population--who work full or part time. According to Denise Jessup, associate director of Careers for Older Americans, a federally funded nonprofit agency that operates telephone hot lines for both older job seekers and employers, the number of older workers will increase to 2.4 million by the year 2000.

As more and more adults look forward to living into their ninth and tenth decade of life, the numbers will continue to grow. In 1980, 26 million Americans older than 65 made up 11% of the population. By 2030 it is projected that 66 million people, or 20% of the population, will reach 65.

Seniors who work, said Prof. Ruth Weg of USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, have a better chance at good health and quality of life.

For one thing, they are more aware of good nutritional habits. “There is a general impression,” she said, “that if people are out in the world they become more aware of whatever is on the community’s mind. They socialize. There is a heightened emphasis on diet and weight control. There is a tendency to stay away from junk food and increase attention to fitness and feeling well.”

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Weg thinks that work itself helps the older person keep healthy, vigorous and vital. “People who work become healthier,” she said. “They more readily plan to eat a balanced diet and they are stimulated to become healthier when they work.”

Weg believes that people are aging more “successfully” than ever before. “They are becoming healthier, more motivated, more aware of the significance of exercise and are better able to cope with the trials and tribulations of life in a demanding culture. Today’s over-65 year-olds, especially the group that’s ‘young-old’ (her term for youthful), are more vigorous and vital than ever before.”

Do the elderly who work have different nutritional requirements?

According to the nutrition guidelines for older Americans released recently by the California Department of Health Services, all older people require fewer calories because activity levels and basal metabolism decline. At the same time, they continue to need as much protein, vitamins and minerals as in their earlier adult years.

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So the diet for older adults should be relatively moderate in calories, but contain a high proportion of essential nutrients such as calcium, riboflavin, B2 and, in particular, Vitamin D. People who work do not need to increase their calorie intake if they have sedentary jobs.

The California Daily Food Guide recommends a diet of no more than 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day; reducing fat to no more than 30% of the total calories; increasing complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other fiber-rice foods, such as legumes, beans, peas and nuts); reducing sodium, increasing potassium (found in fruits and vegetables); and consuming low amounts of alcohol. The guide also recommends intake of six to eight glasses of fluids a day to help prevent dehydration, a problem of the aging process.

After age 45 years for women and 60 years for men, calcium warrants special attention due to the rising incidence of osteoporosis with each decade of life. Estrogen deficiencies in women, chronically low intakes of calcium, low activity levels, high levels of protein intake and cigarette smoking contribute to diminished bone density.

For those who work, the need for exercise may increase because of the sedentary nature of most jobs held by older people, according to Weg. “Age itself is not an explanation for poor health. We contribute to ill health in part because of the lack of exercise and the misuse and disuse of this incredible body,” said Weg. “Bad bodies are the result of sitting around. We are too sedentary. The body was never meant to function that way.”

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About 80% of older Americans never exercise, according to Weg. “But we can’t become great runners overnight,” she points out. “We have to educate ourselves toward active lives.” For working older people, she recommends walking rather running, “especially for women with fragile bones.” Swimming, dancing and cycling are other good forms of exercise.

Although excess vitamins and mineral intake may not be necessary under normal dietary conditions, elders who are put into stressful situations may require some supplementation, she thinks. Emotional stress stimulates secretion of certain hormones which affect the immune system and can affect health, but exercise has shown to be a reducer of stress.

Weg had other ideas for older people who want to keep fit in the workplace:

--Eat a good breakfast of whole grain cereals or muffins. Eat whole eggs no more than once a month, and at other times replace them with egg wgites or commercial egg substitute, which is higher in sodium but free of cholesterol and fat.

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--Complex carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains should make up 50% to 60% of the diet.

--Yellow and orange vegetables and fruits such as carrots, oranges, melons, peppers, lemons and grapefruit help reduce risk of certain cancers. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower also are good complex carbohydrate sources associated with anti-cancer benefits.

--Oat bran is a good food but not a panacea. In addition to oat bran, Weg recommends rice and other brans to help reduce risk of carcinogens and increase fiber in the diet.

--Older persons, especially those who are at risk of cancer or heart disease, should consume 20% or less of their day’s calories in fat, rather than the 30% daily intake recommended generally.

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--Cholesterol levels should be down to the 160--180 milligram level, in any case no higher than 200 milligrams. “A few years ago there was confusion about the role of cholesterol,” she said, “but today there is none. Reducing cholesterol in the blood reduces the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.”

--Osteoporosis, a bone-depleting disease once thought to affect frail white and Asian women, is now seen as a disease of the aging process for both men and women. Nonfat and low-fat milk products, especially fluid and dry milk fortified with Vitamin D, are recommended to combat it. Weg thinks an intake of 1,500 milligrams of calcium, almost double the USRDA (United States Recommended Dietary Allowances) recommendation, is warranted for older persons. Warning: A diet too high in fat, caffeine and alcohol can pull calcium out of the bones.

--If lactose intolerance is a problem, there are products containing the enzyme lactase that can be added to milk products. Otherwise, yogurt, which is already predigested with lactase, is a good alternative.

--Avoid soft foods. “They’re a poor excuse for eating,” said Weg. “If there is a problem with teeth or other mechanical problems, fix it. The body is perfectly capable of breaking down foods and there is no substitute for a good solid meal.”

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Statistically, the health picture of the elderly is poor. Obesity, although declining in those older than 65, has been estimated to occur in more than one-third of the females and about 15% of the males after age 65, as of 1987.

National and regional surveys also indicate that a significant portion of the elderly are malnourished. A recent study released by the County Senior Citizens Affairs Nutrition Program in Los Angeles and conducted at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif., showed that there is little monitoring of nutritional status of those older than 65 and that cholesterol levels of elderly adults are worsening due to poor nutritional and lifestyle changes.

The study further indicated that Latino and black males had a much higher rate of obesity than whites, and that in the 65 and older group, 20% of both men and women were 120% of the desired weight. Hypertension was the most frequently occurring risk factor of the 345 participants whose weight exceeded 120% of ideal. The incidence of diabetes was also higher for overweight men than women.

Weg stresses that nutrition is only part of the picture of the aging individual. “You have to look beyond nutrition,” she says. “You look at lifestyle, goals, involvement in community activities, ability to cope with stresses, intellectual pursuits, a sense of community and intimate relationships.”

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The idea, she suggests, is to live “protectively” during aging. “We must be more protective of our health if we are interested in having the vitality and energy and good health in order to live well as long as we can live."THERESA’S CHILE RELLENO

1 (7-ounce) can whole green chiles, drained 6 slices mozzarella cheese

2 eggs, separated

Salt, pepper

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Drain chiles and arrange in single layer in greased casserole or 10-inch baking dish. Beat egg whites until stiff. Beat egg yolks and fold into whites. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread egg mixture over chiles. Bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

FLORENCE NUCCIO’S MARINARA SAUCE

1 small onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

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1 tablespoon olive oil

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or basil

Salt, pepper

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8 ounces spaghetti

Grated Parmesan cheese

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until browned. Add tomatoes with liquid. Mash tomatoes. Add oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until tender and drain. Pour sauce over spaghetti. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes about 3 1/2 cups or 4 servings.

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MARIA SCHEPPELE’S NUTRITION COOKIES

1/2 cup margarine, softened

1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed

2 eggs

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1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

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2 3/4 cups sifted whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup apple juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

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1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup currants

1/2 to 1 cup chopped hazelnuts

Apple Glaze

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In large mixing bowl of electric mixer, cream margarine with brown sugar, eggs, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves until blended and fluffy. Add flour, soda, apple juice, vanilla, raisins, currants and hazelnuts. Mix lightly but well. Cover and refrigerate.

When ready to bake, drop dough by rounded teaspoons 2 inches apart onto greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool on wire racks. Glaze with Apple Glaze. Makes 4 1/2 to 5 dozen cookies.

Apple Glaze

1/3 cup margarine

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2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons apple juice

Heat margarine over low heat until golden brown. Remove from heat. Strain into powdered sugar in bowl. Add vanilla. Beat in apple juice until mixture is smooth and of desired consistency.

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